Category: Archive

Wilde: an outsider in every way

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

THE THIEF OF REASON: Oscar Wilde and Modern Ireland,” by Richard Pine. St. Martin’s Press, New York.

There was a time in the history of Irish literature when certain writers were carefully and repeatedly referred to as “English authors born in Ireland,” Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Thomas Moore among them, as though Ireland were constitutionally incapable of producing world-quality work on its own.

By the time Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw came along, their essential Irishness was, to an extent, undeniable, mainly because of the force of their personalities, although British chroniclers still tried to lay claim on them, identifying them as Irish writers who wrote English plays, and backing their argument with the fact that both men wrote seriously only after they left the island of their birth on a more or less permanent basis.

In recent years, however, particularly as regards Wilde, there has been a tendency toward reevaluation specifically in national origin, and Richard Pine’s “The Thief of Reason: Oscar Wilde and Modern Ireland” is one of the more scholarly and, in its way, persuasive arguments for the case of the writer being nothing if not essentially and eternally Irish.

Pine, a respected scholar, critic and lecturer, has written on subjects as diverse as Dublin’s Gate Theatre, manners and morals in the time of Beau Brummel, plus studies of writers including Brian Friel, Lawrence Durrell and Brendan Kennelly.

He first approached Oscar Wilde for a brief biography written to be part of “Gill’s Irish Lives,” with Pine’s contribution appearing in 1983. Of Gill’s venture, Pine writes: “In the early 1980s the appearance of a series entitled ‘Gill’s Irish Lives’ presented for the first time an opportunity to approach Wilde from an Irish perspective.”

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Since the Gill books are what even Pine calls “vest pocket biographies,” it’s only natural that, once captured by the story of Oscar Wilde, he should have returned to it something over a decade after he first studied and wrote about it. The result, “The Thief of Reason,” is a careful, meticulous, sometimes almost too meticulous, consideration of the Dublin-born writer’s status as eternal outsider, because of this homosexuality, which, despite being widely speculated about, Wilde himself never acknowledged.

Although Pine devotes part of his book to Wilde’s outsider status in terms of his geographical dislocation, it quickly becomes clear that the writer’s overwhelming concern is Wilde’s sexual situation, an area of the writer’s life often ignored or glossed over in earlier biographies.

In a way, Oscar Wilde was always an outsider, born into a family which, despite its prominence, was composed of misfitted individuals. He was one of three acknowledged children of a prominent eye surgeon, Sir William Wilde, and his wife, who had been born Jane Elgee. There were, however, at least four other children William Wilde had produced with women to whom he wasn’t married, and one of whom remains unidentified to this day.

Lady Jane Wilde, an ardent feminist and an early and avid supporter of the cause of Irish nationalism, became a noted poet and pamphleteer, using a number of pseudonyms, ‘Speranza” being the most celebrated.

In other words, Oscar Wilde grew up in a family of Protestants who were nevertheless Irish patriots, and whose private life was often the subject of speculation and near-scandal.

It is Pine’s view that the presence in Wilde’s life of illegitimate half-siblings led to his writing with such regularity of men and women whose familial origins could be said to be questionable at the very least, significant examples being the characters he created for “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” and even “An Ideal Husband.”

A scholar and lecturer, Richard Pine is a rather stiff, awkward writer, as was evident in his largely unreadable 1990 volume, “Brian Friel and Ireland’s Drama.”

As a result, Pine’s version of the story of Oscar Wilde, one of the most poignant, even tragic, tales in the history of modern literature, stays, for the most part, rather coldly on the pages. But the facts are undeniably powerful, and, in Pine’s study, impressively abundant. His personal feelings do show through from time to time, however, sometimes movingly, as when he mentions holding in his hand the card which Robert Ross, perhaps Wilde’s most loyal friend, and the man who had, in all probability, introduced him to active homosexuality, had sent to the Passionist Fathers in Paris, asking them to attend “a dying man.”

Ironically, the background of Wilde’s surroundings seems more emphatically present in Pine’s book than the man himself ever does, giving new meaning to the playwright’s self-analysis: “I was a problem for which there was no solution.”

– Joesph Hurley

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